Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The spirit world

If you are in Siem Reap this weekend, catch the opening of the new Jerry Redfern photo exhibition at 4Faces Gallery, a block away from Pub Street. It begins at 7pm on Saturday 30th, just a pity I won't be there. Here's what Jerry has to say about his Be Unscared: A Glimpse of the Cambodian Spirit World in the Everyday exhibition.
This project is a first glimpse into the Cambodian spirit world – as it can be no more than that for an outsider. I have been a photojournalist for years and have worked in Cambodia regularly since 1998. I like to think this gives me a fairly good insight into daily life here. But I also understand that I will never be able to view the Cambodian cosmos as the Khmer do.
That cosmos is a blend of ancient Hinduism (as seen at the temples of Angkor); spirit worship that comes in part from the people who for centuries have hacked lives from capricious jungles; and Buddhism, with its prayers, chants, scriptures, arcane writing and its stories of religious men reborn into worlds beyond this one. We as foreigners know this spirit world exists in Cambodia, but we often miss the common gestures – a twist of the head, a bit of graffiti, a monk's breath, the flames of a candle.
The title “Be Unscared” comes from a sign at the Temple of the Floating Tree outside Phnom Penh, home to a monk with an elephant tusk that people believe can cure mental illness. And while the sign echoes one of the teachings of the Buddha, it also sums up what Cambodians have been hoping for centuries. It's a call for calm in the face of a dangerous world, whether the danger comes from the beasts of the jungle or those in Phnom Penh. On a technical note, the project is done on 35mm color negative film (which itself has become an arcane medium). The film is past-dated, which made it cheap (important for photographers these days) but that also led to a couple of unintended consequences. There are random color shifts in the old film, which are apparent in the inconsistent color of the prints. The old film also left some photos un-useably under-exposed. And then I had to get re-acquainted with taking photos and not being able to see them immediately on the back of the camera. I had to be unscared and trust that I had the images I thought I had seen. Sometimes I did – sometimes I didn't. And sometimes I had better. This exhibit is really just the start of a project I intend to work on for the foreseeable future. In most of these encounters with the Cambodian spirit world, people tell me about other sites, other people, other magic. I really don't imagine I will see all of the Khmer spirit world any time soon.

A new website is up and running for the documentary, Brother Number One, which documents the murder of New Zealand yatchsman Kerry Hamill by the Khmer Rouge in 1978. It follows his brother Rob, an Olympic champion rower, as he retraces his brother's steps and speaks to eyewitnesses and survivors. They are two thirds through filming including Rob's testimony at the ECCC last August and will return to Cambodia for the verdict in the Comrade Duch trial, expected sometime next month. Visit the website here.

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Friday, May 29, 2009

Arrested and deported

As it wasn't on my Cambodia radar, I missed this story from my good friends Karen Coates and Jerry Redfern, who were both deported from Myanmar a couple of weeks ago. Karen (pictured) is the author of the excellent book Cambodia Now and Jerry is a well-respected photographer. Here is their own press release issued on 11 May from Bangkok, when they became the center of attention on the media wires:

Arrested & Deported: The two of us were detained in Mandalay on the evening of Wednesday, May 6, and deported to Bangkok the following night. The arrest came within hours after we had finished a series of feature writing and photography workshops, organized by the American Center in Yangon and approved by the country’s Scrutiny Board (censors). All of the 20+ government authorities we encountered during the ordeal said they were acting on orders from Naypyidaw. They did not give a reason for the arrest. Many said they did not know why we were arrested. They asked us nothing, told us nothing, searched nothing, took nothing. We were not mistreated or manhandled.

We were arrested at our hotel after dinner on May 6. Immigration authorities came to the hotel lobby and ordered us to pack for an evening train to Yangon. They said they had received the arrest order from Naypyidaw half an hour after our last class and lecture had ended. We spent the following 16 hours under the escort of two officials who shared our cabin. When we arrived in Yangon, we were taken to the airport, then Immigration offices downtown, then back to the airport for several hours before an evening flight to Bangkok. We had been in Burma to teach and lecture about creative nonfiction feature writing and photography. The programs were follow-ups to similar work we did in January, all of which had been approved and acknowledged by the Scrutiny Board and the Special Branch (police). In fact, Special Branch officers briefly visited Jerry on the first day of his class in Yangon, on April 27. All of our classes and lectures proceeded without incident or further visits from the authorities.

We have no idea why we were arrested, though we have since heard many rumors. Perhaps it was fallout after another American – whom we do not know nor have any connection to – allegedly swam across a lake to meet Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in Yangon. We have heard people say we are CIA agents in disguise as teachers – that is not true. We have heard people say we met with monks in monasteries and other politically sensitive sources – that is not true. We have heard rumors that we met with the Moustache Brothers comedy troupe in Mandalay – that is not true. In fact, we met very few people outside of the classroom, mostly because we wanted to avoid any run-ins with the government for just this reason.

Other rumors allege that we were working on sensitive stories. That is not true. The only story we had in mind was a small piece on laphet thote, (pickled tea leaf salad) explaining the flavors, history and cultural significance of the dish. This would have run on the food page of a travel magazine. In Mandalay, a colleague introduced us to the owner of a longstanding laphet thote business. That man invited us to see his place, which we did. He then invited us to visit a trade center where people buy and sell beans and pulses, key ingredients for laphet thote. He was very excited about the invitation; we thought little of it. We accepted and planned to meet on Thursday morning – but we never had that chance. This might be all, or part, of the reason we were deported.

What happened to us does not compare to what happens to Burmese who run afoul of their own government. We were spooked, and the train trip was uncomfortable and unnecessary (we already had plane tickets back to Yangon that could have been switched to Thursday morning). But we were fairly certain we were not going to jail for years – or decades. We are heartbroken to think we might not be able to return to Burma. But that is trivial to how we worry about the safety of the people who helped us on these trips. We worked hard to avoid government scrutiny, or any “journalistic” appearance. In the end, we cannot say why we were arrested. That mystery rests with the Burmese government. [end]

On an entirely separate note, I presented The Tenth Dancer and Samsara at Meta House Thursday evening to a small, but nicely-rounded audience. In taking a few questions from the assembled throng afterwards, one comment came from a lady who said she was excited to see Em Theay on The Tenth Dancer as Theay had briefly been her dance teacher in 1979 in Pursat. As Theay made her way back from Battambang to Phnom Penh, she spent time en route teaching dance and the audience member had been in her dance class for about two months in 1979. I didn't manage to speak to the lady involved after the session, but what a lovely addendum to the screening of the film.

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